On August 29th, 2005, my husband and I were transplanted Southerners living in Chicago. That day, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
We know the facts well at this point. The storm surge caused the region’s levees to collapse. Water engulfed New Orleans, and Mississippi and other Southern states experienced massive flooding.
I sat glued to the TV for hours as fresh horrors unfolded: people rescued from rooftops by boat or by helicopter; miles of evacuees stuck in traffic going nowhere; general looting; evacuation of Memorial Medical Center; the suffering of displaced families sheltered in the Superdome.
At the time, Michael Chertoff, then Homeland Security Secretary, said, “… [t]his is probably the worst catastrophe or set of catastrophes … that I’m aware of in the history of the country, a devastating hurricane followed by a second devastating flood.”
Amazingly, Chertoff got it wrong.
Katrina’s antecedent, The Great Flood of 1927, holds an unchallenged place as the worst natural disaster the United States ever experienced. It changed not only the geographical landscape of the country from Illinois to Mississippi but the country’s social and political trajectory as well.
Descriptions of the enormity of the flood’s damage—even accurate ones—seem hyperbolic. The turgid Mississippi broke out of its banks in dozens of places. The worst damage occurred in mid-April at Mounds Landing, a known weak spot in the levee system, where water roared through a mile-wide crevasse at a volume and force comparable to Niagara Falls. In some places, the Mississippi stretched 80 miles wide. It covered more than 27,000 square miles—an area the size of New England.
Within this largely unremembered, deeply foreshadowing historical event, husband-and-wife writer team Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly have set their fictional drama, The Tilted World. At its heart, the story portrays the late 1920s Prohibition Era through the alternating narratives of two protagonists, Teddy Ingersoll and Dixie Clay.
Ingersoll—a bit of a daydreamer, a WWI veteran, a musically talented hobbyist, and a Prohibition revenue agent—arrives in the town of Hobnob, Miss., with his partner. They are tasked, at the behest of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover (who has designs on the White House), to discover and arrest the region’s most notorious bootlegger, the maker of Black Lightning.
Ingersoll encounters Dixie Clay, an isolated and neglected young woman who unwisely wed a charming scoundrel at the age of 16 and lost their baby to scarlet fever at 18. In her future she sees only “work and more work until she die[s]. So far, she hadn’t been wrong.” Dixie Clay also happens to be the bootlegger Ingersoll seeks. A “shiner” in earnest, she cooks up the region’s best moonshine—Black Lightning—and she experiments with flavor infusions and recipes like a mixologist in a modern tippling room.
These individuals come together over Willy, an infant suddenly orphaned by a robbery attempt gone wrong. Ingersoll, an orphan himself, sees a chance to help a helpless baby avoid the troubles he has endured in his own life. For Dixie Clay, Willy represents a second chance at motherhood. The pull between the two adults builds in slow, inexorable intensity, rising just like the floodwaters of the Mississippi River.
Description and dialogue in The Tilted World unfold in elegantly simple language that feels true—no surprise given that Franklin is a bestselling novelist of Southern noir, and Fennelly a widely respected poet. (Both teach writing at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi.)
Dixie Clay embodies an archetype—the spunky, semi-educated-but-plenty-smart young Southern woman who marries the wrong man and goes down the wrong road with him. (As Ingersoll reflects, “Maybe she’d needed her dream to come true to realize it was the wrong dream.”) She also loves books, demonstrates equally excellent marksmanship and cooking skills … and expertly concocts moonshine. Petite, but physically strong, she reminded this reviewer of Jennifer Niven’s beautifully bold, titular heroine in Velva Jean Learns to Drive (another victim of a bad marriage).
At The Tilted World’s climax, Dixie Clay—clinging with a broken arm to the top of a hundred-year-old oak as the river sluices wildly below—admonishes: “Rescue yourself, girl.” She might be talking about her entire life, of course. She holds on for hours in the cold and wet until help arrives. It’s Ingersoll in a boat.
A second story, of those unrescued, lurks at the novel’s periphery. Nearly a million people, disaffected and downtrodden even before the flood, fled the raging Mississippi in the spring of 1927 (presaging the million souls displaced by Katrina). In particular, hundreds of thousands of blacks—many poor sharecroppers—funneled into poorly supplied refugee camps where they received minimal food and shelter and nearly no medical care. A centuries-old Southern shame continued too: Gang-pressed into working the levees, often at gunpoint so they wouldn’t run away, these refugees essentially became slave labor once more.
This mass uprooting from the Mississippi Delta and from farms and communities up and down the Big Muddy eventually led to the Great Migration. African-Americans departed the South en masse for big cities in the North, particularly Chicago. Hoover rode the flood’s aftermath to a presidency, but his broken promises for assistance to victims of the Great Flood of ’27 ultimately catapulted blacks from the party of Lincoln into Democratic arms.
Historical novels obviously cannot and should not attempt to incorporate everything that gives them their context. Still, were I allowed one wish for The Tilted World, it would be that Franklin and Fennelly had incorporated at least one African-American character of significance.
Their best work focuses on the impact of nation-shaping events seen through the narrow lens of Ingersoll and Dixie Clay’s relationship. The authors make personal the consequences of terrible loss and upheaval. Still, by the end of the novel, almost everything—historical or otherwise—becomes overladen, waterlogged, with meaning: Dixie Clay loses her wedding band in the floodwater. A police receptionist tells Ingersoll “… there’s five hundred darkies in the courthouse that can’t be fed and the place smells like a slaughter pen.” (Here, of course, we recollect the Superdome nightmare after Katrina and the deplorably slow response of the Bush Administration to the disaster.)
After the Great Flood, many governors and senators begged sitting President Calvin Coolidge to come survey the damage, to provide aid, to no avail. (The American Red Cross offered the only aid the South received.) African-Americans suffered most. It is impossible not to hear reverberations of the 1927 Great Flood in the events that occurred 78 years later after Hurricane Katrina.
In The Tilted World, Franklin and Fennelly have produced a beautiful novel, replete with the rhythms and lyricism of true Southern storytellers, “a story with murder and moonshine … dynamite and deluge … a woman, married to the wrong husband, who died a little everyday. A man who felt invisible.”
One keeps thinking about the novel long after the last page has been read, turning over the characters as well as the larger historical context like rough gems in a rock tumbler. So many thoughts: how individuals must—and can—save each other, physically and emotionally. How political institutions, meant to serve us, repeatedly fail in that endeavor.
The book intimates that not much has changed since the Great Flood. Its events occurred in a historical echo chamber. The novel tells of endings, and the beginnings made possible by those endings, about unlooked-for second chances and redemption.
The Tilted World reminds us of what’s worth remembering—and retelling—about events many people would choose to forget.
Shelley Wunder-Smith, a freelance writer and indie-shop bookseller, lives in Atlanta with her husband and two cats.